The bullied had turned bully

The most compelling component of Justine Henin-Hardenne the champion is the one you cannot see.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

The most compelling component of Justine Henin-Hardenne the champion is the one you cannot see.

Oh, we can see the chords of muscle in her legs, the serrated stomach, the wings of speed. We can see the curling, bullwhip of her backhand, the powerful whirl of her forehand, and a serve that suggests this is what David's slingslot may have looked like.

But what you cannot truly see is will.

You cannot really gauge the determination that spurred on this young woman who lost her mother when she was 12 and was later estranged from her father.

You cannot truly weigh the tenacity that pushed her on, even though in the company of Clijsters and Serena and Capriati and Davenport she looked like a boxer in the wrong weight category.

You cannot quantify the resolve that drove her to Pat Etcheberry's fitness centre in Florida, where she ran, and lunged, and chased her shadow, till the training track glistened with her tears of pain.

You cannot, in all truth, precisely measure the thickness of steel that lines her stomach or the strength of will that firms her hand.

You cannot see, but it is impossible not to be moved by it all.

After all, the turning of a player into a champion is the most beautiful picture sport has to offer.

That EN-ah AR-den, and let's get the pronunciation right because she's going to be around a while, has become the best women's tennis player in the world is admirable. That she has done it in the time of Serena is unthinkable. The toothpick has outdone the tree trunk.

Last year, when Serena bludgeoned her way to three successive Slam titles, all manner of exaggeration understandably followed. She was unbeatable, unsinkable, a howling typhoon of shotmaking, a body-builder with an athlete's turn of speed, carrying herself with all arrogant grace of a predator. Henin for her appeared not so much competition as a light snack.

The Belgian was handicapped by more than her lissome build. Her small eyes darting anxiously like a frightened deer seemed to indicate she felt overwhelmed. Her fluency was inadequate against pure muscle, her legs took her that far but no further.

Etcheberry, whose fitness programme for Pete Sampras once made me break into a cold sweat just sitting and reading it, addressed one problem. He added steel to her silk, he added endurance to her speed, helping to forge her into a ballet dancer of a player, a lissome, elegant, explosive presence.

Henin could now hurtle across the baseline and turn a defensive situation with a single shot into aggressive intent, she could rally with the best, she could endure for hours, she could attack with flair. She will still slight but her game was not. The bullied had turned bully.

Said Etcheberry: "She's like Jim Courier or Thomas Muster, she always gives one hundred percent. And she always wants to win, even if we're just running wind sprints."

One hurdle crossed, one remained. Muscle had brought confidence, but it has not completely overturned fear.

When she lost to Venus in the Australian Open semi-finals, her coach Carlos Rodriguez did not excuse his charge. He accused her of being scared, of being intimidated. It was perhaps the last time she was. A pivotal moment, an expression of the bright, new Henin was required, and it came possibly at the Family Circle Cup in April,

In the final, she dismantled Serena. It was the first time the American had been beaten all year. If that suggested Henin's ascent to another level, it was confirmed when she outlasted Serena in the French semi-finals. But perhaps the most significant demonstration of her completeness as a player, the absolute proof that she had discovered that elusive blend of athleticism, stroke talent and self-belief, arrived when she played Capriati in the U. S. Open semi-finals.

One statistic tells the tale best: Henin was within two points of losing no fewer than 10 times. But she would not quit. Limping, exhausted, she spent part of the night hooked up to intravenous fluids, then returned to destroy Clijsters in the final.

It was the seal of greatness, it was final confirmation that no player had played better this year. It did not matter about No.1, which she was two weeks ago but has since been overtaken by Clijsters. It did not matter that she has won eight titles this year, and so has Clijsters, and Serena only four.

What settled all arguments is the Grand Slams; the ability to harness energy, and collect the resolve, and find the game, when it counts most. Serena won the Australian, was semi-finalist at the French, won Wimbledon and was injured for the U. S. Open. Clijsters was semi-finalist at the Australian and Wimbledon and finalist at the French and U. S. Opens. But Henin was semi-finalist at the Australian and Wimbledon and champion at the French and U. S. Open.

But sport is becoming too cruel, too cynical, to allow the fairytale to be written without someone stepping on it. After the U. S. Open, a clatter of hideous voices queried Henin's new-found strength, slyly suggesting, without evidence, that unfair means were responsible for her physical development.

On radio, Filip Dewulf, a former Belgian player, apparently said about her training with Etcheberry: "In the United States they are less concerned about nutritional supplements.

I can obviously prove nothing, but I see very clearly that the muscle mass in Justine's legs seem to have doubled. In my time I also lifted weights, but in my case there was never the same development."

Today, on Henin's website is an open letter of apology from Dewulf, where he writes: "Justine, I'd like to apologize to you ... I never wanted my words to cast dark clouds over your fabulous victory in New York. I've been naive and miscalculated the impact of my words."

Perhaps Dewulf and the others, who were so focused on her musculature, hadn't figured out this.

That the most compelling component of Justine Henin-Hardenne the champion is the one you cannot see.

Will.

It is why when players will be busy flying off on holiday in the off-season, resting their weary bodies prior to the Australian Open, Henin will be on her way to Florida. To Etcheberry's camp again. To endure whatever "misery" (her word) she has to in her bid to become an even stronger, even better, player.

Becoming the best has been hard enough. Staying there, she knows, will demand even more of her.